There will be a lot written about the historical significance of last night’s thriller between the UConn Huskies and Syracuse Orange. While its place in college basketball lore is not to be ignored, the more pressing question is, what did it teach us about these teams now?
UConn came into the game as the favorite. They were a strong lock for a No. 1 seed, and many people saw them as a Final Four team with championship potential.
The Huskies have been on a bit of a downward spiral since the injury to their star point guard Jerome Dyson—suffering two losses to Pitt, not to take anything away from Pitt (they may still be the best team in the country), and now this epic to Syracuse.
It’s hard to say that a team with only four losses is in a downward spiral, but there has been a noticeable difference in the quality of play. Teams have been hanging around on UConn, and if Pitt and Syracuse taught us anything, it’s that Hasheem Thabeet can be controlled down low (Pitt), and A.J. Price is not enough on the perimeter (Syracuse).
UConn’s lack of depth could hurt them come tourney time. A long run for the Huskies will expose this, and teams will be able to take advantage of a tired Connecticut team. UConn does not have a player averaging over 14 ppg—Price averages exactly 14—and will need big contributions from Jeff Adrien and Kemba Walker if they hope to go to Detroit.
If the Huskies run into a hot shooting team, they could be making an early exit. This would not only neutralize Thabeet, but also wear Price down from running around the perimeter.
UConn is averaging 77.3 points per game as a team. With NCAA Tournament games typically being higher scoring affairs, this leaves little room for error. Big contributions off the bench will be needed, as UConn cannot afford to get into a free throw shooting showdown; as a team they shoot .677 from the charity stripe.
The Huskies' lack of scoring was evident last night as they were never able to put Syracuse away. They went 24-of-42 from the free throw line, missing crucial free throws down the stretch, and this cost them dearly.
UConn was never able to capitalize on Thabeet’s size either. The co-player of the year in the Big East played 53 minutes, scoring only 19 points and recording 14 rebounds. In comparison, Adrien and Stanley Robinson both had 14 rebounds to tie for the team lead. Thabeet also didn’t record a single assist.
Thabeet’s inability to take over, and the inability of UConn to put points on the board, revealed the major weaknesses of the Huskies. UConn could have trouble with hot shooting teams in the tournament.
They should reach the Final Four, but don’t be surprised if they get upset by a Cinderella in the making.
The Orange got their first lead of the extra time in the sixth overtime last night. They never looked back. Syracuse may not have anything left for West Virginia, but come tournament time, they showed why they have the makings of a team that can make a deep run.
Did anyone other than me see a little bit of Gerry McNamara in Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins? Their clutch three-point shooting kept the Orange alive in the extra periods and exposed the weak perimeter defense of the Huskies.
Rautins scored 20 points coming off the bench. He was 6-of-12 from behind the arc and had a solid all-around game with four rebounds, two assists, three steals, and one block. He only turned the ball over one time.
Eric Devendorf played 61 minutes. He scored 22 points and had a Christian Laettner-like full court pass and catch miracle three overturned at the end of regulation. He hit the important shots when it mattered most. His very emotionally driven performance showed the nation that the Orange would not be denied.
The star last night, for either side, was Jonny Flynn. He played 67 of 70 minutes. In those 67 minutes Flynn scored 34 points, had 11 assists, six steals, three rebounds, and one block, and only committed two fouls.
Flynn showed that he has the potential to take the Orange on his back and carry them deep into the tournament. Another stat that should not go overlooked is that he went 16-of-16 from the free throw line. As a team Syracuse was 40-of-51 from the charity stripe.
If one wants to find a singular difference amongst the two teams that contributed to Syracuse’s win, one does not need to look further than the free throw shooting.
Syracuse has five players averaging in double figures. Last night they had four players top 20 points. UConn, by comparison, only had two players top 20 points, and only three topped 15.
The ‘Cuse managed to only turn the ball over 16 times. They protected the ball well and played a ferociously aggressive defensive. They forced the Huskies into 27 turnovers and a 7-of-35 shooting night from three-point range.
Syracuse entered Big East play undefeated. They scored quality wins over Kansas, Memphis, and Florida out of conference. In conference they suffered defeats to Villanova (twice), Pitt, UConn, Georgetown, Louisville, and Providence.
Syracuse is battle tested and has shown they can beat some of the best teams in the country. With Flynn playing as well as anyone in the country, the sky is the limit for this team. They are young, and that could hurt them, but they are also talented.
As a team Syracuse averages 81.8 points per game. They shoot .491 percent from the field as well. They are not a great free throw shooting team either, coming in at .642 as a team, but they showed last night that they, unlike UConn, can hit the big free throws when it counts.
If you are looking for a sleeper team to pick, pick the Orange. Syracuse has all the tools and showed last night that they also have the heart, determination, and will to win. These are intangibles that could carry them to victory in close games.